February 11–23: PUERTO RICO

Bacardí Distillery Tour welcome drink.

I split my stay in Puerto Rico between Ponce on the south coast and San Juan on the north coast, the respective kingdoms of DonQ and Bacardí rums. My mother, taking advantage of the President’s Day long weekend, joined me for much of it. The two of us look, sound, and act freakishly alike, and we have traveled extensively together, so her arrival meant little change to my regular routine except for upgrading my solitaire game to gin rummy.

Though Poncé is the most populated city outside the San Juan metropolitan area, it dramatically lags behind the capital in size and energy. Poncé’s sleepy downtown is a charming, colorful mix of the eponymous Ponce Creole style, with a touch of art deco, centered around the iconic Parque de Bombas. A generation or two ago, the downtown quickly gave way into miles and miles of sugar cane fields. Today, with the Puerto Rican sugar cane industry utterly abandoned, Poncé’s outskirts appear mostly as an industrial suburb, hugging the narrow stretch of dusty plains between brush-covered mountains and the sea.

La Parque de Bombas in the center of Ponce.

The purpose of our visit to Ponce was to meet with Roberto Serrallés, a Vice President of of Destilería Serrallés, the producer of DonQ Rum. With the steam stacks and molasses tanks defining the skyline of Poncé and the grand Castillo Serrallés overlooking the city from the hills beyond, the Serrallés family retains serious cache.

Over a bottle of cava and crab-crusted red snapper at the local favorite, Lola, Roberto spoke to us about the Serrallés family’s 19th century start in the rum business and his 21st century initiatives to increase the distillery’s productivity and environmental sustainability. With a PhD in environmental sciences from the University of Oregon, Dr. Serrallés is uniquely poised to lead this charge. In recent years, Dr. Serrallés has moved the distillery to greater reliance on solar energy and pioneered a recycling system for its 350,000 annual gallons of wastewater; next, he plans on reintroducing sugar cane production to Puerto Rico, creating local jobs and cutting down the need for environmentally and financially costly importation of molasses from foreign markets.

After lunch, we headed over to Destilería Serrallés. In Roberto’s youth, when the Puerto Rican sugar industry remained profitable, the complex boasted its own bustling village, with homes, a general store, and a health clinic set along a palm-tree-lined boulevard. Today, the village and the original factory buildings are largely overgrown, but the new distillery facilities continue to hum with activity.

Entering the main administrative building, Roberto took us upstairs to his office to smell and sample some of DonQ’s offerings. We began with a whiff of untreated molasses and working our way up to a taste of the incredibly refined 150th anniversary blend, of which only 1,865 bottles were made. With our palates whet, we made our way outside and hopped on a golf cart to explore the distillery’s facilities. Like Angostura, a multi-story 5-column still matrix handles the majority of their rum production. But Serrallés stills run the gamut from the low-tech 1934 machine, what Roberto lightheartedly belittled as a “vodka-making kit” purchased in the post-prohibition frenzy to tap into the reopened American market, to a top-of-the-line modern model. Their master distiller, one of the few women who has followed Joy Spence’s footsteps in breaking the industry’s glass ceiling, bursted with price over this newest acquisition.

L: the Serrallés 150th anniversary blend; R: a vintage DonQ ad.

Before their controversial move to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Destilería Serrallés was poised to become the new home of Diageo’s Captain Morgan. (The National Library of Puerto Rico, which I visited in San Juan, is full of newspaper articles attesting to the heatedness of this 2010 “guerra del ron” that rocked the Puerto Rican rum industry.) As a result, the distillery’s capacity for production exceeds its actual output. Rather than bitter about the unexpectedly superfluous expansion, Roberto seems excited about the distillery’s potential for future growth on their own terms.

After a several days in Ponce, my mother and I decided to hit the road and explore the western shore of the island. Frustratingly, my age inhibits me from renting a car without incurring all sorts of under-25 fees, so heading westward in our economy Kia was a welcome luxury on this stop. Hugging the southern coast, we made our way to the the lighthouse, El Faro de Cabo Rojo. We stopped for an early dinner at Bomboleio in Joyuda, where we made sure to try their rum-flambéed “pirate shrimp.”

The following day we traveled northwards up to San Juan, with two pit stops on the way. For lunch, we exited off the highway onto Route 184 — otherwise known as La Ruta de Lechón aka Pork Highway. At the Eater favorite, La Lechoneria de los Pinos, we indulged in a tray-ful of slow roasted pork, sweet plantains, stewed cassava, rice and beans. Thankfully, our second stop — a tour of the Bacardí distillery — offered the chance to wash it all down with a fruity rum punch.

On the Pork Highway.

The Bacardí distillery is like none other, and we decided to buy into the full tourist experience. Ensuring the easy arrival of bus and ship-loads of rum-loving foreigners, giant signs plaster the highway, pointing the way to the rum Mecca. Upon arrival, guests are shepherded to the pavilion, a beautiful white structure designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe meant to evoke the famous Bacardí bat. There’s a choice of three tours: historical, tasting, and mixology; we selected the first. Unfailingly cheerful staff members handed us tokens and glassware for a complimentary beverage and a buzzer that would announce the start of our tour.

When our buzzers began to glow and shake, we headed over to the trolley with the rest of our tour mates. Much to our amusement, the trolley traveled a whopping four city blocks before dropping us off at the historical center, within spitting distance of our point of departure. The visitors’ center is a beautifully orchestrated combination of extravagant (a full-blown movie theater for a 5-minute introductory video), hoaky (the mini museum dumps you into a gift shop where you can buy Bacardí everything from pajamas to golf accessories), and informative (a series of five rooms tell the story of the company’s history, distillation process, and variety of products). After the tour, we picked up our cocktail (a beautifully colored but cloyingly sweet tropical punch concoction) and sat down for another round of gin rummy.

L to R: Bacardí pavilion; main office building; posing inside the gift shop with the sample Bacardí 8 Year old fashioned.

On our first morning in San Juan, we visited the National Library of Puerto Rico, where, in addition to learning more about the drama with Diageo, we sifted through their archives on local rum distillation. In college, I focused on American Studies, but my major — History & Literature — required all of its students to reach a high enough level of proficiency in a foreign language in order to be able to take a literature course in said language. Though my Spanish is certainly rusty, I was proud to be able to put my Hist and Lit training to use and navigate the archives with a librarian who spoke only Spanish.

We spent the rest of our three days in San Juan exploring the sites of the city’s old center, with its iconic blue cobblestoned streets and multicolored colonial architecture. The Rums of Puerto Rico conglomerate has launched a “Rum Route” through Old San Juan, offering tourists vouchers for rum cocktails in exchange for their patronage at several local bars. Though we steered clear from La Casita de Rones — the flagship locations that is strategically placed near the cruise ship port — we made our way through the list of rum bars on steeper, quieter streets.

Old San Juan, L to R: Drinks at Aquí Se Puede; my mom poses on the oceanfront promenade, Strawberry mojito popsicle at Señor Paleta’s.
The colorful cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan.

Next stop: Mexico City, part II.